The Writer’s Toolbox – I Have a Spellchecker

“Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea…”

You’ve seen the humorous poem before, and you get it; spellcheckers are the misfits of the editing world. They miss homophones. They mix up words. Their understanding of grammar is downright laughable.

But they’re not entirely useless?and if you write them off, you could regret it.

Spellcheckers get a bad rap, and deservedly so; they’re limited in scope and can’t make fine usage distinctions or determine which homophone is the right choice if you type the wrong one in. they’re also unreliable in their ability to pick up on typos that can double as real words. Worse, in the hands of someone who’s confused about word pairs, spellcheckers may liberally sprinkle the manuscript with misspellings.

With whole blogs and tumblrs dedicated to spellchecker fails, It’s no surprise that most now see this tool as a laughingstock, a sad remnant from the earlier, more hopeful days of word processing. More often than not, we don’t bother running our spellcheckers at all. Eh, what’s the use?they’ll just screw things up anyways!

And yet.

A few nights ago I was happily reading when a word jumped out at me: “theif.” Just as I typed it here, a little squiggly line came up; It’s spelled wrong. I can see that. You can see that. But I can also understand a human copy editor and proofreader missing it, because It’s easy to mentally flip the i before the e without realizing we’re doing it.

Human error is inevitable in editing?It’s unavoidable. But this error wasn’t unavoidable, and That’s what’s bothering me more.

When you don’t run your manuscript through a spellchecker, you risk missing hard-to-see typos or spelling errors?words like “theif,” that almost look right (and apparently managed to make it past several editors at the publishing house).

Surprisingly, more than half of the manuscripts I receive have clearly not been spellchecked, which means they contain quite a few unnecessary errors?everything ranging from typical typos to misspellings of an invented word, like a character’s name (you can add these to the custom dictionary, and your spellchecker will flag deviations), to two words crunched together without a space in between. First impressions matter, and it can be hard to shake a negative one when easy-to-catch typos jump off at me every time I turn the page.

Technology is no substitute for human editing?but it can help ease the burden and provides another set of “eyes.” Even spellcheckers, riddled as they are with imperfections, make a valuable first defense against errors. Your spellchecker should also be part of your manuscript finalizing routine, as it can help sniff out typos introduced at the proofreading stage?like “teh” for “the” or spacing issues (think “alittle” for “a little”).

Recognize your spellchecker’s limitations, of course, and use it with care?but use it. You might not find anything. You might still miss word pair mixups, like “then” instead of “than,” or improper usage or dangling modifiers. But you’ll catch typos like “theif” and their ilk, and odds are you’ll end up with a cleaner manuscript than if you never were to run it all.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.

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